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Italy's isle of Sicily
Experience Mediterranean history, culture and cuisine without the crowds
Think of Italy, and Rome may first come to mind, with its ancient Forum and Vatican City; or perhaps Venice, with its canals and palazzos; or Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance. It is less likely that your thoughts turn to the large island off the toe of the boot, Sicily. That's partly because, for years, many visitors shied away, wary of tales of crime organizations.
Since ancient times, travelers have praised Sicily and its eternal charms. You'll find opportunities to explore cultural riches from Greek ruins to Baroque palaces, and savor century-old recipes crafted with the fruit of the citrus trees and the herbs that scent the air. An added bonus is that here, unlike tourism hot spots like the Amalfi coast, Rome and Venice, you'll find peace and quiet are close at hand, making it easier to enjoy these simple pleasures far from the camera-clicking crowds.
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, every culture in the region, the Greeks, the Arabs and the Romans, have passed through Sicily, many leaving grand monuments behind. The island boasts seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the most impressive of them is the southwestern coastal city of Agrigento, founded in the sixth century B.C. by Greek settlers. On a ridge outside the city, you'll find the Valley of the Temples with its seven Doric temples—among the most impressive constructions of the ancient Greeks still standing today—within the world's largest archaeological site.
An hour's drive to the east of Agrigento, the Villa Romana del Casale is located at the base of Mount Mangone. This fourth century villa, which is also a UNESCO site, is most famous for its mosaics, though it also provides a glimpse of the daily life of wealthy Roman citizens thanks to an extensive excavation and restoration completed in 2012. For history buffs, there are the Neolithic tombs near the town of Syracuse, on the island's south eastern coast, as well as buildings that reflect the influence of Arabs, Normans and others who have coveted this prized island.
Food and wine
Sicily's cuisine is rich with dishes that make the most of the bounty of the Mediterranean, along with the oranges, olives, and tomatoes that thrive on the sun-kissed island. The food also reflects that legacy of past conquerors like the Arabs, who left behind couscous dishes and a fondness for almond sweets. Wherever you travel in Sicily, you'll find excellent renditions of caponata (eggplant cooked with capers in a sweet/sour sauce)—and cannoli (tubes of pastry with a creamy filling made popular in the United States, thanks to Sicilian immigrants).
Any culinary tour should include the open-air markets, most open daily, of the capital city, Palermo—Ballarò, Capo, and the largest and most popular, Vucceria. In addition to nibbling your way through Sicilian specialties, vendors at the markets sell handicrafts and other souvenirs.
Cooking classes abound on the island, offering opportunities to learn the secrets of Sicilian cuisine from local chefs. Among the best of them are those offered at the Planeta Estate, roughly halfway between Marsala (home of the fortified dessert wine) and Agrigento. Chef and cookbook author Angelo Pumilia designs his classes so that each morning-long session starts with a focus on an element of Sicilian cuisine—seafood, olive oil, and pasta among them—and ends with everyone sitting down to a meal paired with wines.
Oenophiles will want to visit the wineries of Sicily. The most famous local wine is marsala, produced near the town of the same name on the west coast. There is, however, much more to the island's wine culture than that one variety. In fact, Sicily grows more wine grapes than any other region of Italy and boasts more than 300 producers. You'll find familiar varieties like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, but also others unique to Sicily, like the indigenous nerello mascalese, which grows on the slopes of Mount Etna.
Sicily boats one of the world's most active volcanos—though eruptions rarely threaten residents. Mount Etna on Sicily's eastern coast, rises above the Strait of Messina. Visitors can hike through the vast national park for opportunities to see Etna's fantastic craters, cones, and lava flows. (And the ash-rich soil are what makes Sicily's grapes and olives exceptional.)
To the north of Sicily, the seven Aeolian Islands also reflect the volcanic activity of the region. Day trips from Milazzo and Taormina offer shopping in the village on Panarea, swimming in the clear cobalt waters of Filicudi and Alicudi, and, as evening descends, seeing the natural fireworks display of the volcano on Stromboli before returning to Sicily.
As you plan your Sicilian adventure, you might want to leave it to an expert. Discover Your Italy, based in Perugia (on the mainland, in Umbria) can arrange culinary and cultural itineraries to Sicily.
If you are planning your own itinerary, Sicily has a number of hotels that make for good bases for exploring the island. At the top of the line there are two Belmond hotels both located in the northeastern coastal town of Taormina. The 70-room Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo has been a favorite of visitors to Sicily since the 19th century. It sits next to the city's Greek theater while its terrace, and many of its rooms, overlook the city's rooftops. With an oceanfront location, the 60-room Belmond Villa Sant'Andrea is in a converted 1830 villa set amid landscaped grounds.
The Planeta Estate, where Chef Angelo Pumilia holds his classes, is nestled among vineyards near the southern town of Menfi. The hotel has 14 rooms and is a convenient location for exploring Agrigento.
In Ortigia, the ancient center of Syracuse, where you can see sites from a Greek temple and Baroque churches along the waterfront, the Algilà Ortigia Charme Hotel is a good value offering modern four-star comforts in two converted Baroque palaces.
John Newton is a Chase News contributor. His stories have appeared in AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel+Leisure, among other media outlets.